By Dan Gephart, August 15, 2018
Imagine spending a beautiful summer day at the ballpark. You have great seats along the first base side. Foul balls routinely make their way towards you – four to be exact. The first three balls you pick up and immediately hand over to youngsters in your section. The fourth foul ball you grab and, remembering it’s your anniversary, hand to your wife who is sitting next to you. It’s smiles all around.
It sounds like a perfect day. But it’s not.
You see, a video of you snagging that fourth foul ball is being shared at alarming rates on Twitter. The video makes it look like you snubbed the cute little boy a row in front of you. You are trending and not in a good way. After all, what kind of monster doesn’t give a foul ball to a kid?
If you’re a baseball fan or a Twitter user, you are familiar with the video taken during a recent Chicago Cubs game. Heck, you may have retweeted the video along with the comments “jerk” or “a—hole,” or maybe you are the Twitter user who called for the man to “be publicly shamed and booed for hours.” I’m not even mentioning the tweets that called for a good old-fashioned physical beatdown.
If there’s one thing we Americans are especially good at, it’s shaming others. Facts? We don’t need no stinking facts. Context? Ha! Let’s shame!
I was thinking about the baseball fiasco as I read a story last week about two former EPA career employees. Michael Cox worked at the EPA for more than 25 years, most recently as a climate change adviser. Elizabeth Southerland had more than 30 years of EPA experience when she left.
Both resignations were political. The departing employees made it known that they were unhappy with the agency’s direction under then-Administrator Scott Pruitt. Cox certainly left with a bang, writing a scathing five-page letter to Pruitt and sharing it with his EPA colleagues.
The best thing would’ve been to let this blow over.
An EPA spokesman took a different tack, telling reporters that Cox was expressing “faux outrage” and that the real reason for his resignation was so he could cash in on his “six-figure taxpayer-funded pension.” (A year and a few FOIA requests later, we now know that Cox’s pension, minus benefits and taxes, falls well below that “six-figure” threshold.)
The same communications team pitched a story to news outlets that Southerland left for similar reasons.
This was clearly an attempt to shame the former federal employees.
Does anybody remember former VA social worker Robin Paul? Barbara Haga wrote about her extensively in our July 2015 newsletter. Unlike our Cubs fan, Paul really did commit an awful act, or at the very least, she suffered a serious lapse in judgment. She sent an email to her staff that included images that mocked veterans by placing a toy elf in various positions. (You really have to see it to understand. But it was awful.) Paul was placed on administrative leave while the VA investigated. She agreed to a 90-day suspension of her clinical license.
Meanwhile, the Shame Patrol came out in full force, publicly arguing for Paul’s termination. This was followed by death threats. After her children were harassed, the family was forced to seek police protection. Finally, Paul, who had an otherwise excellent work history, resigned before the VA even finished its investigation, pleading to be left alone.
She got what she deserved, you might say. Well, that’s pretty harsh. Then again, the Shamers don’t deal in nuance. Read through Jon Ronson’s highly engaging 2015 book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” and you’ll understand why social media shaming has become the modern-day equivalent of a public flogging.
But as purveyors of discipline in your agency, you can’t afford to listen to the Shamers. You need to gather the facts, weigh the evidence, and carefully determine the penalty. Unfortunately, you’re going to have to work really hard to tune out these Shame Spreaders. If you’ve been on Twitter or Facebook lately or read any newspaper’s comments section, you know that these Internet vigilantes aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Gephart@FELTG.com